10th February 2016
From Cherwell to Carlisle Tory cuts are destroying local services
On Saturday, at the Annual gathering of the Labour group on the Local Government Association, Tom Watson praised the work done by Labour councillors and councils. It is praise that is well-merited.
It comes in February, that time of year when councillors are busy drawing up budgets or responses to them.
It is well-known that local government has borne the brunt for the reduction in public spending. In my home county of Oxfordshire the latest financial settlement has seen a further £20m in cuts added to the £50m already planned by the County Council. This will have an impact on things like bus services, children’s centres and social care.
The difficulties for the county council in Oxfordshire have provided much ammunition for many on the left, for the fairly obvious reason that the Prime Minister has his seat here and, the leader of the council, Ian Hudspeth, is based in Cameron’s own constituency. This has manifested itself in an article by George Monbiot rightly pointing out how a letter from Cameron to Hudspeth exposes the latter’s seeming ignorance of the workings of local government.
Yet debate around how Labour in opposition responds to the proposed cuts in spending reveal many of the prevailing tensions currently in view on the left. This debate has been replicated nationally where we have even seen rows between Labour councillors and Labour activists on social media about how the local party should respond to cuts.
There are two main schools of thought.
The prevailing view among activists is that Labour should have absolutely nothing to do with any cuts. Instead, Labour should vote against any and all budgets set, on the basis that they are driven by Tory cuts. Any attempt to modify or prepare an alternative budget because the party will be tarnished with having implemented cuts. Voters, the argument goes, already do not see a difference between Blue and Red Tories and they need it spelled out to them that Labour opposes all cuts.
The alternative view is that Labour in opposition has a duty to show itself to be a credible alternative. That means proposing alternative budgets, which include cuts in spending, but modify the budget so as to reflect Labour priorities. This way Labour councillors while unable to prevent all cuts, purely because of the sheer size of the funding gap, may be able to protect some services that the Tories may otherwise cut. This view is the one espoused by council leaders and by many opposition leaders especially where there may be no overall control (as in Oxfordshire) or a very small majority for the Conservatives. Labour, it is argued, can campaign locally as having made a difference in its community.
Where Labour is seriously outnumbered I think it is understandable for Labour to adopt the first tactic. This applies to the district council Labour group that I lead. These groups struggle to get much airtime in the local press without presenting what is a very clear alternative view to editors and the public.
But where it is tighter, and where a Labour budget has the potential to get through with the help of a few Liberals, Greens and Independents (maybe even maverick Tories), is this refusenik line really the correct one for Labour to take?
The first tactic has the bonus of offering the electorate clarity. Labour opposes cuts. But it also offers the public no real reason to vote for a Labour councillor except as a gesture. Labour is not lacking in gesture politics at present. What it is lacking is credibility and, certainly at the moment, proof that it can be trusted to govern. These are what is offered by the second option.
In this way, the different approaches taken by Labour groups and parties across the country to the challenges facing local government are a microcosm of the bigger battles that are taking place in the party itself.
By Cllr. Sean Woodcock
- Leader of the Opposition and Labour group on Cherwell District Council
- Parliamentary Candidate for Banbury Constituency, 2015 General Election